Wednesday 20 November 2019

Bullish Leo throws down the gauntlet to pretenders

With an end in sight to the housing crisis, Varadkar is getting increasingly confident

Bring it on: Does Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have ballot-box gold? Photo: Mark Condren
Bring it on: Does Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have ballot-box gold? Photo: Mark Condren
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

The takeaway political news of the week is that Leo Varadkar is supremely confident Fine Gael will win the next general election. Chomping at the bit for an election, some might say. Cocky even. And why wouldn't he be?

With the EU, he appears to have backed the UK into a corner on Brexit; Fine Gael is coasting on a 10-point opinion poll lead over nearest rivals Fianna Fail - with Sinn Fein a distant third, and, from the latest statistics, believe it or not (and I do), the country may have just turned a corner on the housing crisis.

Add to that, Varadkar's super-duper image as a young, gay, mixed-raced, modern leader of one of Europe's most socially progressive countries, with a booming economy to boot, who looks good, reflects well, and, what is there not to be confident about?

Hell, he even has people openly talking about uniting Ireland.

So, the Taoiseach last week practically goaded Sinn Fein into tabling a confidence motion in the Housing Minister.

Such a motion, he also said, was designed by Sinn Fein to "embarrass" Fianna Fail, as if that party could not be any more uncomfortable at the bind into which it has gotten itself by an ill-thought out confidence-and-supply agreement to support the Government.

Varadkar effectively challenged Sinn Fein leader, Mary Lou McDonald, to 'bring it on'. And it was up to Sinn Fein to go where even People Before Profit declined to go last week.

Instead, that smaller party tabled a motion on land speculation and hoarding, and public and affordable housing.

In other words, it put forward proposals on what should be done, from a Marxist perspective, to alleviate the housing crisis, but is not necessarily gunning to take down Eoghan Murphy.

On housing, Sinn Fein had to put up or shut up, having huffed and puffed around the issue for months. Yesterday, it effectively decided to shut up. After months of sabre rattling, Mary Lou McDonald is now left a little more embarrassed by her own political manoeuvrings than is Fianna Fail.

So the Housing Minister, Eoghan Murphy is to avoid a confidence motion, which he would have won anyway, because Fianna Fail is such a bind of confidence and supply.

A confidence motion would have allowed Sinn Fein to jump up and down for a day or two, and point the finger at Fianna Fail: look at them, - backing right-wing Fine Gael, which has worsened the housing crisis by handing it over to vulture funds and capitalist free marketeers.

And where would this have left Fianna Fail? Embarrassed, certainly, at again having to make the best of a bad deal, blindly negotiated with Fine Gael two years ago.

In its defence, Micheal Martin's party would say it still intends to honour that deal, and there is honour in that, and contrived an argument that Sinn Fein's motion would not even mix the cement, let alone build a single house, and there is a truth in that too.

So relax everybody, there will not be an election this side of summer's end, much as Varadkar would not mind one, with him campaigning in summer shades and short-sleeved shirts, for all the world looking like a bright new future.

There will be a lot more houses built by next election however, whenever it comes.

That is because for all of the criticism, it really does seem as if a corner has been turned in the housing crisis.

Now, it may be true that the country was coming out of a severe financial and banking crisis for several early of the last seven years, and that there was not much anybody could have been done, as Fine Gael has argued.

It may also be that there were not as many houses built in those seven years as Fine Gael had led us to believe, based on questionable recording methods, when you strip out the cowsheds that were also connected by the ESB.

And it is also certainly the case that more could have been done sooner to directly intervene and provide much-needed social housing to ease the homeless situation.

But it is also the case that at the end of 2017 there was a 75pc increase in housing built compared to 2015.

Those 14,500 new builds, and other completions, may not yet be enough to meet pent-up demand, but if the trend continues, and there is no reason to doubt it, then supply should finally begin to meet demand within two to three years.

That may not be of much comfort to a generation of mostly millennials who have missed the property boat in a Lost Decade, or to the many homeless either.

But to use the late Brian Lenihan's immortal words, it still looks like the worst is over and that we have turned the corner.

And that raises the question as to whether housing will be an issue, or the issue Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein expects it to be, at the next election whenever that may be.

Increasingly, it is my view that housing will not be, or not to the same extent as will be the economy in general.

The vast majority of voters are housed, after all and - truth be told - are not overly concerned about this issue.

Then we come to this ephemeral self-image and impression of Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach, however shallow and somewhat narcissistic that may be to consider, but which is undoubtedly an advantage at the ballot box.

Like everybody else, Varadkar is also assessing the endgame of this Government. Interestingly, the confidence- and-supply deal does not specifically refer to its lifetime.

When you read the document, you will find that there is no mention of 'three Budgets'. In other words, there is no expiry date, just provision for a "review" at the end of 2018.

That is taken to read 'three Budgets' but could also give Micheal Martin an 'out' to continue confidence and supply, to preserve his leadership, in the somewhat uninspiring hope that something will come along to turn the tide.

However, the thinking in Fianna Fail is that there will be an open revolt should he extend what has turned out to be a flawed deal.

Flawed in this way, for example: the first ever confidence-and-supply deal here was negotiated in the absence of fixed-term parliaments.

Norway has fixed-term parliaments, meaning dissolution within a four-year term is not constitutionally permitted.

Therefore, if a no-confidence vote leads to the dissolution of parliament a new government must be formed without an election.

To respect the mandate of the people, that makes sense.

Furthermore, in Spain, votes of no-confidence must be 'constructive', that is, such votes must simultaneously propose a new government.

So, in Ireland, were Sinn Fein to propose 'no confidence', it would also have to be prepared to cross the floor of the Dail and form a stable government.

The point is constructive confidence votes are more challenging for opposition parties and help sustain a minority government.

In the absence of such a constitutional provision here, Fianna Fail, in retrospect, was somewhat foolish to enter a deal with only a lengthy three-year built in review.

Fine Gael wanted a five-year deal; but if Fianna Fail had its time again, I imagine it would have insisted on annual reviews, as the Liberal Democrats did in the UK in 2010.

That is water under the bridge now. All Fianna Fail can do is insist on a 'housing budget' this October and claim some credit for a turnaround in the country's fortunes, to which it would be entitled.

But even that would be to assume that a new generation of voters really takes account of 'details' anymore, or whether they go more with 'feelings' or on instinct.

In his endgame assessment, Varadkar will weigh up whether Fianna Fail now plans to pass the Budget this October, and the social welfare and finance bills, and then the appropriation bill at year's end, the final act before Christmas.

Then, I imagine, he will assess whether Fianna Fail will refuse to renew the deal, or seek instead to keep the Government in office in a weakened state into the New Year, and then force an election on its own terms in January or February.

All of these scenarios narrow Varadkar's options. So, he may decide to cut and run after a crunch EU summit on Brexit in October, the outcome on which he may seek a mandate, including collapse on the Irish border question.

Either way, he is in pole position, and knows it. In other words, he can campaign as easily in a scarf and top coat as in shades and a short-sleeved shirt.

Between now and then, he needs to be careful he does not get too cocky about himself, which, for Leo Varadkar these days, is starting to look a lot more easier said than done.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss